Pence expected to be shunned by Holy Land Christians

Posted at 9:40 PM, Jan 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-21 21:40:31-05

BETHLEHEM, Israel (CNN) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is a devout Christian and has spoken about wanting to help followers of Christianity in the Middle East who are persecuted for their faith.

But his visit to Jerusalem this week will see him shunned by Christian leaders.

Despite centuries of war, famine and disease, the local Christians remained. But now, church leaders fear a complete exodus.

"Our biggest challenge is to keep them here. You need to build a government, a country, an identity for the people. We pray for that to have peace in this country," said Rami Askarian, a Catholic priest.

Three denominations share the birthplace of Jesus. While they don't agree on theology, they all agree that U.S. foreign policy is hurting the local Christian community.

When President Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, 13 of the city's church leaders from 13 denominations denounced it. Before the declaration, Pence announced a Middle East trip, to help embattled Christians.

Now, not one of the local church leaders wants to meet him. The major threat to Christians in the Middle East comes from the White House, according to former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah.

“If he wants to defend Christians in the Middle East, he has to start changing American policy in the Middle East, to start a new vision of politics built on life and human life in all countries," Sabbah said.

What's seen there as the United States' preferential treatment toward Israel, and the occupation of Palestinian lands, is driving Christians away, according to the clergy. People's lives opportunities, and movements are restricted by Israel.

In a Christmas message, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel saying it's the only country in the region where Christians have equal opportunity.

"I'm proud that Israel is a country that not only do Christians survive but they thrive because we believe in this friendship among people and we protect the rights of everyone to worship in the holy shrines behind me," Netanyahu said.

But local Christians see the opposite and look abroad for a better life.

"We want to raise our kids here. We don't know what next will be. Most of our relatives have left the country for this political situation," explained Morin Butto, a local Catholic:

If the American Vice President truly wants to help the Christians of the holy land, Sabbah offers this advice: "You love Israel. That's very good. But you love the Palestinians if you're Christian. Jesus said, ‘love everyone.’"

Otherwise, a church without a congregation becomes just another shrine.

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